HARD HITS: NHL All-Star Weekend and Trade Deadline

NHL All-Star Weekend came and went in San Jose. They were a great host with some of the best fans in the game. I’m not much for the All-Star Game anymore due to the changes. Most notably, the wild and crazy 3-on-3 winner take all tournament that features all four divisions battling for $1 million. However, I did catch some of the Skill Competition and part of the Metro Division defeating both the Atlantic and Central to take the money.

I’m gonna give you some thoughts on what I liked and what I think can be done better to make the big weekend more fun for hockey fans. I guess it depends on what kind of fan you are. Some of the newer audience enjoys the uniqueness of the frenetic pace of 3-on-3 that we’ve enjoyed during the regular season in a too abbreviated five minute overtime. As legendary NBC play-by-play man Doc Emrick would say, “What chaos!” It sure is.

Watching two 10 minute periods of 3-on-3 featuring most of the game’s best players is fun and random. One of my favorite things. I guess maybe because I’m old school, I prefer the traditional 20 minute five-on-five for three periods with the hectic 3-on-3 for OT. I would love to see the league go back to East vs West and interchange with the popular North America vs The World. Something I always enjoyed. Where else could you get enticing match ups featuring the likes of Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, Jack Eichel, John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Patrick Kane, Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Brent Burns, Seth Jones, Mark Giordano, Kris Letang, Marc-Andre Fleury, Carey Price and John Gibson against European talent such as Nikita Kucherov, Alexander Ovechkin, Artemi Panarin, David Pastrnak, Leon Draisaitl, Sebastian Aho, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, Elias Pettersson, Aleksander Barkov, Evgeni Malkin, Erik Karlsson, Victor Hedman, Roman Josi, Miro Heiskanen, Pekka Rinne, Henrik Lundqvist and Andrei Vasilevskiy?

Most would argue that there’s never been better talent between Canada and the United States, and they wouldn’t be wrong. I excluded Mitch Marner, Mathew Barzal, Drew Doughty, Morgan Rielly and Thomas Chabot to name a few. In the glory days, you had Sergei Fedorov, Pavel Bure, Teemu Selanne, Jaromir Jagr, Nicklas Lidstrom, Dominik Hasek, Pavol Demitra, Sergei Gonchar, Ziggy Palffy, Peter Forsberg, Mats Sundin, Patrik Elias, Nikolai Khabibulin, Teppo Numminen and Marian Hossa. The skill level for the World was off the charts. Sometimes, it even included the scintillating Alexei Kovalev or Martin Straka. Yeah. Those were the days. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg along with Daniel and Henrik Sedin followed suit.

Just for the dream goalie match-up of Hasek vs Martin Brodeur for a period, it was worth it. Or say Forsberg up against Eric Lindros, or Colorado teammate Joe Sakic. Ditto for Fedorov against Steve Yzerman. How about Sundin facing Mike Modano? Or Elias trying to get past Scott Niedermayer or Scott Stevens and beat Brodeur? It always created a interesting dynamic. I’d like to see the NHL get back to that.

Not that the 3-on-3 circus isn’t entertaining. Where else can you have goalies at the skaters’ mercy facing 3-on-1’s and clean breakaways from the red line? One of my favorite moments when I watched was seeing Braden Holtby aggressively challenge a breakaway and do the old Brodeur/Hasek slide to cover up the puck and take away the scoring chance. As long as no one gets hurt. You always worry about that with goalies in such a unpredictable exhibition.

What about the move Stamkos pulled off on Lundqvist, who went for the poke check, only for the gifted Lightning captain to somehow tuck the puck between his legs and around the Rangers netminder and in for a spectacular goal? Wonderful stuff. Of course, the elder statesman put on a show on Friday night by winning the breakaway with 12 consecutive saves. The 36-year old also shutout the Central in the first period of the Metro’s 10-5 win in the championship round.

Of course, Crosby took home MVP honors with four goals and four assists for eight points in the two Metro victories. The Pens captain got booed by the San Jose crowd even when he didn’t participate in the Skill Competition on Friday due to being sick. It was hilarious. He wasn’t even present and they still booed. Tavares also got jeered throughout. I forgot why initially. But it was due to the Sharks just missing out on Tavares last summer when he chose the hometown Maple Leafs over the Islanders and Sharks. Fans never forget. I still found it funny. It’s not like he spent the past decade as an Islander. Wait till his return to Nassau Coliseum. First, he’ll be back in Brooklyn next month. Then, Long Island. That should be must see TV.

As far as the Super Skills, I loved seeing U.S. Olympian Kendall Coyne Schofield take part in the Fastest Skater competition. She became the first woman to compete in the All-Star Skills. She did very well skating to a time of 14.346 seconds. It was a signature moment. McDavid took the event for a third straight year by beating out Eichel with a 13.378 for the win. Eichel’s time was 13.582, passing Stars rookie defenseman Heiskanen, who ran a time of 13.914 after falling hard on the second turn to get a retry. He shook it off.

Lundqvist making 12 saves in a row was cool. He admitted to getting a bit lucky on Kucherov and Tavares. But sometimes, goalies need puck luck. I can’t remember the last time Lundqvist looked so happy. It was nice to see. He will get Tuesday’s first Rangers game back off at home against the Flyers.

The hardest shot disappointed. Carlson won it with his best shot clocked at 102.8. I actually thought it was lower on my first audio podcast via Facebook. Oops. At least it was up from Washington teammate Ovechkin, who won the event last year with only a 101.3 in Tampa Bay. Ovechkin skipped All-Star Weekend, opting to take time off to be with his family. He will serve a mandatory one-game suspension. Eek. I don’t like when players skip the event because it takes away from something the fans voted on. They want to see the world’s best. Crosby has sat out before too. What’s the point of having it if a few of your best are going to make a excuse to not participate? Unless you’re hurt, you should represent your team for the fans.

I didn’t like having the All-Star Game on Saturday night. Why? Because they wanted to avoid going up against the glorified joke that is the Pro Bowl? Gee whiz. I get that the leagues probably had a mutual agreement not to have their games on the same day. I preferred the All-Star Game on Sunday afternoon. Oh well.

I want to get back to the hardest shot for a second. Gone are the days when players registered 107-108 MPH. You’ll never see it again. If there is one criticism of NBC and NHL Network, they neglected to mention Al Iafrate. The former Cap defenseman was once clocked at a then record 105.2 in the era before composite sticks. His ’93 record stood until Zdeno Chara broke it in ’09 with a 105.4. They don’t even acknowledge it. So much for recognizing history. I’ve never seen a player with a harder shot. It was scary. Imagine what the man with the crazy hairdo and bald spot could’ve done with today’s sticks. Chara holds the modern day record with a 108.8 set in 2012.

Shooting accuracy I used to love. I liked the traditional targets. Pastrnak won it. He’s a pretty good shooter. I said he was a lock for 40 goals. He’s got 27 in 49 games this far. The best guys at target practice were Ray Bourque and Mark Messier. They were money.

I don’t care for the passing thing because it’s so hard. Datsyuk was the master. Gaudreau won the other cool contest narrowly edging Kane to repeat. Those two are so similar. Johnny Hockey is the favorite for his first Hart on the first place Flames. What a year so far.

As far as predictions for the Feb. 25 trade deadline, I will make one. Jimmy Howard to Calgary because it makes too much sense. He’s still got something left and would be an upgrade over what they have. David Rittich has done a good job while Mike Smith is washed up. On a bad Detroit team, Howard has 16 victories, a 2.76 GAA, .916 save percentage in 34 games (33 starts). He deserves a shot to go help a contender win. The Flames are the perfect spot.

Look for either Boston or Columbus to be in on forwards Wayne Simmonds and Mats Zuccarello. Both can use good character players that can add necessary experience and scoring depth for a run. Ottawa’s Ryan Dzingel is a good bet for someone in his walk year. He has 20 goals. What the Senators decide on Matt Duchene could have an impact on what happens with Kevin Hayes and the Rangers.

If as expected GM Jeff Gorton moves both Hayes and Zuccarello, he might not be done. Kevin Shattenkirk has played himself into a potential trade. It hasn’t worked out the way he envisioned playing for his favorite hometown team. He’s better suited on a contender that can use a third pair right defenseman who can play power play and in the offensive zone.

Don’t be surprised if Pavel Buchnevich is on the block. The 23-year old Russian has been inconsistent under Rangers coach David Quinn, who like predecessor Alain Vigneault, doesn’t fully trust him at even strength. Buchnevich is a weapon on the power play where four of his nine goals have come. Counting a 6-on-5 situation early in the season, that’s five of nine a man up. How Buchnevich performs over the next three weeks will determine what the organization does. He’s a restricted free agent this summer. If he stays, a perfect bridge candidate who wouldn’t cost a lot. Figure in the neighborhood of $2.2 million AAV.

Shea Weber has been very good since returning to Montreal. He’s a big reason the Canadiens find themselves in third place two ahead on Boston. With 61 points, the play of Weber and Price have solidified the surprising Habs, who also are three up on second wildcard Pittsburgh, and seven clear of the Sabres and Hurricanes. I’m not a big believer in Carolina. But still think Buffalo could make a push. Keep an eye on the Panthers, who were starting to play better since Vincent Trocheck returned. They won their last three before the break including a impressive win over the Leafs. With still just 48 points and 34 games remaining, they’ll have to jump over four teams. If Roberto Luongo rounds into form, it’s possible.

And finally, the Blue Jackets find themselves in a tough spot. They know they’re likely to lose both Panarin and moody former two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky this summer. That doesn’t matter. This is a franchise that still hasn’t won a playoff series, blowing a winnable first round last year in losing four straight to eventual champion Washington. They should roll the dice and be all in. The Metro is wide open. This is their best chance to break the hex and make a run. We’ll see what they’re made out of.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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